A BRACE OF WOMEN PIRATES. WOMEN WHO POSED AS MEN.
THE life of a pirate on the high seas was hardly likely to attract even the most adventurous woman, yet according to records left by Captain Charles Johnson there were at least two who followed that calling, dressed in sailors’ clothes, and who lived and fought in desperate frays in the early eighteenth century.
The first of whom we have an account is Mary Read, who is said to have been born in England. Her mother who was married to a sailor when she was quite young; when he went on a voyage not long after the wedding was left with a baby boy to keep. As she was very poor, she thought of going to London with the object of finding her husband’s mother, whom she had been told was in good circumstances and therefore might perhaps provide for the child. But before she could carry out this plan the boy died. Later on, she gave birth to a girl whom she named Mary, and being still desirous of getting help from her mother-in-law, who was expecting her with her boy, she had to decide what was the best thing to do.
The changing of a girl into a boy to deceive an old woman was difficult but not impossible, she thought, and so after dressing Mary in boy’s clothes she brought her to London and presented her to her grandmother as her husband’s son. The grandmother was pleased with the child and would have taken it, but Mary’s mother, pleading that it would break her heart to be parted from her, came to an agreement whereby the child was to live with her and the grandmother was to allow a crown a week for her maintenance.
The change once made, it was difficult to go back, so Mary’s mother decided to continue to clothe her and bring her up as a boy. When the grandmother died Mary’s mother was again reduced to poverty, and she was obliged to put the girl into service, which ended in her being placed with a French lady for whom she worked as a foot-boy. She was now thirteen and had grown up sturdy and strong. Being both bold and courageous she had a great longing to rove the world and leave domestic service, so when she was old enough she left her situation and entered herself as a hand on board a man-of-war on which she served for a time as a sailor. Later, she left the ship, crossed to Flanders and enlisted in a regiment-of-foot as a cadet. The cadets at that time were volunteers who generally served without pay, hoping to obtain a commission if they proved suitable.
Although Mary behaved with courage and bravery she was unsuccessful in gaining a commission, but she managed to obtain an exchange to a regiment-of-horse. Here she served with distinction and behaved so well in several engagements that she earned the commendation of her officers.
She fell in love with one of her comrades, Max Studevend a Fleming Corporal, a dashing young fellow who had no idea of her real sex. She began to spend much of her time with him, neglecting her duty of keeping her weapons clean, and was constantly getting into trouble. When her troop was ordered out on foray she used to accompany it without permission if her sweetheart was there, and in this way she ran into frequent danger. The other soldiers, not suspecting the reason, began to think she had gone crazy, but it was not long before Mary made the young man aware of her sex, for they shared the same tent and were constantly together.
At first he was greatly surprised and not too pleased; then he became importunate, but Mary knew how to take care of herself and resisted all his temptations. This only served to increase his ardor and at length he besought her to marry him, As this was Mary’s desire she agreed, and when the campaign was over and the regiment marched into winter quarters she exchanged her uniform for the clothes of a woman and they had a public wedding.
The story of the two troopers who had married each other became the talk of the camp and caused such a stir that they resolved to leave the service. As there was nothing against them and they had gained the favor of the officers, they were soon able to get their discharge with the little money they had received in gifts and with what they had saved, they opened an eating house called ‘The Three Horseshoes‘ near the Castle of Breda, Netherland. They soon established a good trade with the officers of the regiments quartered near, but their prosperity did not last very long, for Mary’s husband died, and when the Peace of Ryswick was concluded the military left Breda and she was forced to give up the business.
As her money was nearly all gone Mary decided to resume man’s attire, so she dressed herself in one of her husband’s suits and journeyed to Holland and enlisted in a regiment-of-foot quartered in one of the frontier towns. After a time, seeing no chance of promotion, her roving spirit again asserted itself, and she resolved to go abroad and seek her fortune.
She got her discharge from the regiment and, making the coast, she shipped on board to a Dutch slave ship heading for the Caribbean. For a time all went well on the voyage, but one day a ship bore down on them, hoisted her flag, the dreaded skull and cross-bones, and demanded the vessel’s surrender. They could offer little resistance, and under the command of the notorious Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham (1682-1720) the pirates boarded the vessel and after plundering her, let her go. Mary Read, the only English person among them, they kept, and took her on board the pirate ship. Having no alternative, she threw in her lot with the pirates and worked as a sailor until she was landed at New Providence in the Bahamas, where she remained for a while.
At length she took advantage of the King’s Proclamation, published in all parts of the West Indies, for pardoning all pirates who would voluntarily surrender by a certain day; with the rest of the crew she gave herself up to the authorities and for a time lived quietly on shore. But Mary could not remain idle for long. When she was getting short of money again she heard that Captain Woodes Rogers, the governor of the Island of Providence, was fitting out some privateers to cruise against the Spaniards, and she with several others determined to join and resume their roving life. They embarked, and on reaching the island had little difficulty in joining a ship forming part of the expedition.
Captain Rackham was in command of their vessel, and they had no sooner sailed than the crew mutinied and reverted to their former occupation of piracy. Mary Read remained with them, although she always declared that the life of a pirate was repugnant to her and that she was always on the look-out for an opportunity to leave it. Her sex was apparently never suspected by anyone on board, but among the crew there happened to be another woman in man’s clothes, whose name was Anne Bonny. She took a great liking to Mary, whom she admired as ‘a handsome young fellow.’ Mary on becoming aware of this sensed her danger and at length confided the secret of her sex to Anne.
The intimacy which had sprung up between the two supposed young men disturbed Captain Hackham, who was Anne Bonny’s lover, and he grew intensely jealous and threatened to cut Mary’s throat until Anne, afraid he might carry out his threat, let him, too, into the secret. Rackham was satisfied, and he carefully kept the secret from the ship’s company, and the friendship between the two women continued. During the cruise the pirates took a great number of ships belonging to Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies, bound to and from England. Whenever they found a good craftsman on board, if he “vas not willing to join them they compelled him.
On one of the vessels they took prisoner ‘a young fellow of so engaging appearance’ that Mary took an immediate fancy to him which developed into a violent passion. She could not rest night or day, and, as she found her affection was reciprocated, they became mess-mates and such close companions that at length Mary revealed the secret of her sex to him. Her love grew no less strong than his, but one day the young man quarreled with one of the pirate crew while the ship was at anchor near the islands. They resolved to fight it out there and then on shore. Although Mary was anxious as to the fate of her lover, she would not let him refuse to fight as he might have been branded with cowardice, so she resolved to pick a quarrel with his opponent herself. Having challenged him ashore, she fixed the time of their meeting two hours in advance of the time arranged for his fight with her lover. The duel began with pistol and cutlass, and Mary with her first shot killed her opponent on the spot.
When the ship at length put into port, Mary married the man of her choice in a church and together they went to sea again in Rackham’s ship “Revenge”, and were engaged in many fights. The intrepid Mary knew no fear and was usually in the forefront during the attacks at sea when the vessels were at close quarters. In one battle, when most of the crew were drunk down below, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, with one man, kept the deck alone, calling out to those below to come up and fight like men. When she found they did not appear, she fired her pistols down the hold killing one and wounding others. The pirate ship was at length captured and the crew were made prisoners and taken to Jamaica.
Of the adventurous life and career of Anne Bonny, the woman-pirate who so often fought by the side of Mary Read, but little is known.
Anne Bonny was an Irish girl who was born in Co. Cork, where her father practiced as an attorney-at-law and her mother was a lady’s maid. Owing to domestic trouble Bonny realized all he had and embarked from Ireland with his child Anne and Caroline, a maid, to seek his fortune in America.
On landing, he began first to practice his profession again, and then went into trade. Fortune so favored him that he was soon able to buy a large plantation. The maid Caroline, who passed as his wife, died shortly afterwards, and his daughter Anne kept house for him.
She grew up to be a fine, strong girl and proved her courage and determination on several occasions, but she had a fiery temper which often got her into trouble. It was rumored that she had killed a maidservant with a clasp-knife in one of her passions, and that she had beaten a young man who waylaid her until he was prostrate; but when not provoked, she was said to be a good and dutiful daughter.
Although her father was ambitious that she should make a suitable marriage, for she would inherit his wealth and estates, she disappointed him by falling in love with a good-looking young sailor who arrived one day in Charlestown. Knowing she would never gain her father’s consent, she married him secretly; when her father learned of this, he was so enraged that he turned her out of the house, and declared he would have nothing further to do with her. The bridegroom, who had not a penny, realizing his wife would never get her father’s money, slipped away to sea without even bidding her good-bye.
After Anne had recovered from her surprise on his disappearance a new aspirant for her hand carne along in the person of Captain John Rackham, the handsome, daredevil pirate who was known as ‘Calico Jack.’
Anne was carried away by his impetuosity and she agreed to go to sea with him, but in order to do this she was obliged to dress in men’s clothes so as to keep her sex concealed from the rest of the crew,
They sailed off on a piratical honeymoon, which continued for some time, when from certain news conveyed to the Captain by Anne he made for Cuba, where he put her on shore in a small cove where he had a house and some friends. After the baby was born, he went to Providence to take advantage of the Proclamation pardoning pirates who surrendered, but before long he again took command of a privateer, and Anne returned to the ship, again dressed as a sailor.
She was as active as any of the crew when an engagement took place and fought courageously with cutlass or marlinspike. She joined in their carouses and when a prize was taken was the one to serve round rum to the jubilant victors.
In October 1720, while sailing near Jamaica, the pirates were surprised by the sudden arrival of an armed sloop which had been sent out by the Governor of the island with the object of capturing Rackham and his ship.
A fight followed, and while most of the crew, except Anne and Mary Read, were down below decks they fought gallantly, as already related.
The pirate ship was captured and the two women, with Rackham and the rest of the crew, were taken as prisoners to Jamaica. They were tried for piracy at St. Jago de la Vega and convicted on 28 November 1720. They were all sentenced to death.
On the day Rackham was executed, by special favor Anne was allowed to see him. She told him she was sorry to see him there, but ‘if he had fought like a man he need not have been hanged like a dog.’
Although Mary Read was convicted and sentenced like the others she was not executed, as she died in prison of fever before the sentence could be carried out. Anne Bonny *) pleaded to have her execution postponed on account of her condition (pregnancy) and this was granted, after which nothing further is known beyond the story that she, too, was seized with a violent fever and ended her days in prison.
*) Note: Anne Bonny is said to have been freed by the influence of her father and to have returned to Charles Towne, where she, according to some sources, dies at an advanced age in 1782 on the South Carolina plantations as the mother of eight children.
Anne Bonny (* around 1698 near Cork, Ireland; † around 1782 in Charles Towne, North America was a legendary pirate in the Caribbean.
Mary Read (* around 1685 in London, England; † 28 April 1721 in Santiago de la Vega, Jamaica) was an English legendary pirate.
Source: The mysteries of sex: women who posed as men and men who impersonated women by C. J. S. Thompson. London: Hutchinson, 1900.